Clinton-Kaine: I Like the Sound of It



A Poet, Linguist, and Graphic Designer Makes His Presidential Pick

I could tell you that I’m voting for the Democratic ticket because I find their party’s platform superior to those of their Republican rivals. On foreign policy, immigration, economic justice and job creation their ideas are much more realistic and feasible.

I could tell you that I’m voting democratic because I’m hard wired to be a liberal. My amygdala is most likely normal sized and thus, is less susceptible to fear arousal than that of many conservatives whose enlarged amygdalas are easily triggered by threats, whether real or manufactured. Furthermore, the increased gray matter in my anterior cingulate cortex gives me a greater tolerance for ambiguity, nuance, and complexity, all of which makes me resistant to the Republican’s easy solutions and binary world view.

Instead I’d like to say that my choice of the president and vice-president candidates is determined by the pleasure of the sounds of their names, alone and in combination. And it’s not only because the first two consonant combination of Clinton and Kaine (the hard “k” sound followed by the “n”) is that of my own last name.

But first the opponents: Trump and Pence, or TrumpPence. The elision of the president’s and the vice president’s name may, with a few letter deletions, suggests tuppence, a Victorian term for a small-value English coin. In period slang, the term had a ribald meaning which I’ll let you look up.

T-P 1

The combination begins with an assertive plosive (“t”), a kind of stop in which the flow of air is blocked from escaping the mouth. But it is in the center of the name, the place where the elision occurs, that most dramatic action occurs. It’s the double bilabial plosive (a “p” quickly followed by another) where the offensive sound takes place. A bilabial plosive is one in which the flow of air is blocked by bringing the two lips together. The effect of the P…P is that of sputtering exhaust pipe or two quick shots that ring out in the night or a moving boxcar running into a stationary one. Entirely fitting for the bombastic, unpredictable, alarming candidacy of Donald Trump and his sidekick. The sibilant “s” sound at the end of Pence’s name is not sufficient to erase the memory of the explosion in the middle of the moniker.

Trump-Pence is a bi-syllabic spondee (marked in prosody, the study of poetic elements,  as –). In poetry terms, this indicates that both syllables are stressed in the poetic foot. The forceful spondee is occasionally used to call attention to the two syllables, which seems about right for the narcissistic Trump. By contrast: if we consider the Democratic name one metrical foot, we have a tri-syllabic cretic, that is, one stressed syllable followed by one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable (-ᴗ-). The unstressed syllable in the middle provides a moment of relief in the middle of the assertive accented syllables. A Kaine-Clinton combination, where the unstressed syllable would fall at the end, would be less resonant.

Clinton and Kaine also begin with plosives, but of a different kind than the Trump and Pense. The “k” sound is a velar plosive created when the tongue closes against the soft part of the palate (velum). The teeth are another “place of articulation.” To make the “t” sound in Trump, the tongue is place behind the teeth.

What makes Clinton and Kaine pleasing to my ear is not only the alliteration of the names but also the consonant that follows the dramatic opening. The “n” is a nasal. It’s a sound that is created by partially blocking the airflow out of the mouth and redirecting it with the tongue through the nose. If you were on Wheel of Fortune, you would strike gold if you asked for an “n.” It appears three times in the twelve letter combination. The result is a sonorous and reassuring buzz that lasts through the pronunciation of the two names. The long “a” in the Vice-President’s name helps extend the soothing sound.

Clinton-Kaine is more musical than Trump-Pence, perhaps because it’s three syllables rather than two. One could make an argument that in the post WWII years three syllables is the perfect combination for the executive team. (Think of the successful two term Reagan-Bush or Clinton-Gore administrations but not the unsuccessful Bush-Cheney team.) Two syllable and four syllable teams often end in defeat. (Think Ford-Dole, Bush-Quayle in 92, the rhythmic Romney-Ryan pair, McCain-Palin, mismatched in more than name.) You can add another example to the “no-two-syllable” rule if Trump-Pence go down in defeat. Five syllables is a mixed bag. (Think Eisenhower-Nixon or Kennedy-Johnson or Obama-Biden but also Mondale-Ferraro and Dukakis-Bentsen.) It always seems better if the presidential aspirant has a longer name than the vice-president’s, as is the case in the three syllable Democratic pair.

Some final thoughts about the campaign logos, about the appeal to the eye rather than the ear. Names can’t be created, but logos can.

Both teams employ the predictably patriotic read and blue on a white background. But note that Pence’s name is half the size of Trump’s, befitting the ways in which Trump will most likely dominate his partner. In addition, the logo designer has used tracking (or letter spacing) to spread across the page the uniform letters. Is this stretching of the names to the borders an attempt to suggest something more than is really there? There’s something out of balance here. From a source who is a font enthusiast, the style is Akdidenz-Grotesk Bold Extended. The modernity of the font contrasts with the conservatism of the brand, but the “bold grotesque” seems perfect. One abandoned icon for the Trump team showed that the vertical portion of the T penetrating the loop at the top of the P. One intrepid researcher discovered that the logo was taken from that of the “Laying P Ranch,” a famous Nevada brothel.

T-P 2

Tellingly, the font size for Kaine is as large as that of Clinton, suggesting an equal partnership and that they are “stronger together,” though Kaine’s shorter name may suggest the necessary subordination. The right-facing arrow (sometimes red, sometimes blue) superimposed on the H is reminiscent of the icon for FedEx, a progressive, forward-looking, ubiquitous, successful corporation. Interestingly, the font, before some slight customization, is called Unity. The logo suggests dynamism and order, all wrapped up in a visually appealing symbol.


About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

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